Women's History Month: A chief's perspective

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Stephanie Brushwood
  • 10th Medical Operations Squadron
(Editor's note: March is Women's History Month, an annual event celebrated at the U.S. Air Force Academy and across the nation to highlight the achievement and success of women. This is the first story in a two-part series showcasing women at the Academy. This report features Chief Master Sgt. Stephanie Lewis, the superintendent of the 10th Medical Group. Lewis hails from Detroit.)

In 1992, then-Airman Basic Stephanie Lewis arrived at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., her first Air Force assignment, to discover she was not only the youngest supply technician on her flight, but also the only woman on her flight.

Soon after her arrival, Lewis learned her flight chief had told other Airmen that because Lewis was a woman, the workplace atmosphere would have to change, so he imposed guidelines to accommodate her arrival. The Airmen's language would have to change, they would have to monitor their joking and tailor their behavior.

"This made my transition into my new work center more difficult in some ways," said Lewis, now a chief master sergeant and superintendent of the 10th Medical Group at the Academy. "The announcement of my arrival and the new strict changes imposed made me feel unwelcome."

Since the rules had changed, Lewis believed the male Airmen on her flight would not accept her as a valued member of their shop.

"I was nervous not only because it was my first assignment, but because I knew I was the reason for all these new rules," she said.

Instead of letting the situation compromise her integrity, Lewis said she stayed true to her beliefs, worked hard, and kept up with her male coworkers in a physically demanding, fast-paced career. She pulled her weight and was eventually recognized as a valuable member of the Air Force team.

"I made sure I earned their respect the same way I would earn anyone else's respect: by working hard and taking accountability for my actions," she said. "I made it known that I wasn't going to make excuses for myself because I'm a woman and I was determined not to be a hindrance to the 'brotherhood' of the men I worked with."

Lewis said her experience at McConnell AFB was challenging, but it made her realize she didn't need to be better than her male coworkers or make excuses for being a woman in a predominately male work center.

"I just needed to be myself and those around me would see me not just as a female Airman, but as an Airman," she said.

On Mentoring
Lewis still has several mentors she turns to for help, but she vividly remembers one specific mentor -- retired Chief Master Sgt. Cindy McNally.

"At the time, Chief McNally was a maintenance group superintendent, which consisted of 1,500 Airmen," Lewis said. "The majority of the Airmen in the group were male, but everyone in the group respected Chief McNally. This first thing that caught my eye about Chief McNally was the way she was revered by everyone. When I met Chief McNally and learned that she entered the Air Force under the WAF (Women in the Air Force), I was floored to see how far women had come after 38 years of being afforded limited opportunities prior to becoming fully integrated in the Air Force."

McNally instilled in then-Senior Airman Lewis a great sense of the importance of taking care of Airmen, Lewis said.

"Chief McNally embodied the Air Force core values -- she knew her job better than anyone and made sure to share her knowledge and advice to all she supervised," she said. "She set us up for success just by setting the example and living by those core values; she looked after her people and made sure her Airmen were taken care of. Chief McNally truly exemplified the phrase, 'If you take care of your people, your people will take care of the mission."'

McNally also taught Lewis to appreciate the importance of being an Airman and mentored her toward continual growth -- even in times of disappointment, Lewis said.

"It's absolutely necessary for mentoring in the Air Force and it's crucial to find someone who can inspire you and guide you to achieve your goals," she said. "Good mentorship is important to instill and maintain not only because of the mission at-hand, but because of the future needs and wants of the Air Force and the Airman. Without mentorship and leadership, Airmen will falter and it may cause them to forget what they are a part of and forget their important role in achieving mission success."

McNally's sense of duty continues to shape Lewis' stance on leadership, she said.

"When you invest in your Airmen, you are investing in team cohesion as a whole," Lewis said. "If you take the time to get to know your Airmen, you will see improvement in what they can accomplish together and for you as the leader."

The chief is more than simply aware March is Women's History Month.

"Women's History Month is both motivational and inspirational for us," she said. "It provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the past and on the many accomplishments women have made to the Air Force. It also encourages us to continue a successful legacy."

For more information on Women's History Month, visit http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2012/0212_womenshistory.

(Academy Public Affairs contributed to this report)